‘Kari’ by Amruta Patil
It’s not the first of Amruta Patil’s work I’ve seen, so the inclination is already there, but I’m besotted before I even open Kari. The cover is beautiful, a close-up of the eponymous Kari in solid black inks and shades of static wryly and self-deprecatingly eyeing her name across a deep scarlet backdrop, blood and the sometimes-softness of a face emerging from expressionist sculpture in equal measures. It unfolds to a brief synopsis, which I don’t read, and a thumbnail of what one might expect later, a sanguine not-Klimt with a bed of intricate roses beneath a hung head, closed eyes. I’ve seen Punjabi storybooks that would serve as better points of comparison, still no doubt inaccurate, but their names escape me and the knowledge can’t be recovered. They were fairy-tales though, or parables. I remember that much.
There’s a chapter heading next, capitals in a Roman script but shaped with a nod to the more elaborate and florid scripts in which it might originally have been conceived, if not etched. The first art of the story-proper reminds me of Peter Gross (The Unwritten & Lucifer) but blunted in pastels which belie the grotesquery of a base, desperate and obsessive love without any of the usual gilding or obfuscation by which such soul-sicknesses are beautified. In fact there are relatively few pages in Kari which are in the lush full colours of the short stories and samples you can see on Amruta Patil’s blog and many in scratchy unfinished pens, scars of black where the pen has slashed hurriedly to illustrate some fleeting ephemera or a chapter’s story breaking down into a confluence of concatenated events.
The graffiti-bright and primary-shaded spotlights stress story beats, mostly, full stops and ellipses, but there’s a scattershot sensibility, an inventiveness that gives every turn of the page a minor frisson of discovery. This freedom in Kari means the ink and pencil grayscale by which the first love/great love/lost love story of Kari, Ruth and the latter’s looming absences are told can be interrupted on a whim with a sudden sharpness, a distracting splash of colour or a découpage inset which draws the readers’ eye. Kari works in a liminal space between comic and abundantly illustrated novel, its refusal to commit to a single style or mode of expression mirroring Kari’s half-life of sublime loves and losses and its contrast to the ridiculous and saccharine hyper-real fairy tales she creates during her work in advertising.
Amruta Patil’s prose, written in a hand which blurs the boundary between the character’s perspective and the artist’s work, is more consistent in its tone than the art; sharp and sarcastic in a somewhat lost and defensive manner which becomes tougher, harsher, in defence of its own right to exist and to exist exactly as it is. Kari’s words are insightful and original, often piquantly and pruriently, yet still steeped in the voices of the endless others and outcasts whose stories often overlap but seldom interact. Paired with the art, whose constantly changing character offers a filter for that which Kari is trying to communicate, the character’s thoughts don’t have the same self-regard and pomposity which have sometimes plagued the auto- or –biographical narrative in comics, nor the opposing strained levity which grew in opposition to the same, and from a morass of mixed-feelings a real sense of Kari’s self arises, defiant.